Orchestra plays Higdon 'Concerto 4-3'

3 minute read
734 Higdon Jennifer
Bernstein upstaged, or:
Swooped away by Higdon's mountain hawk


Could the specter of Leonard Bernstein possibly be upstaged at the opening night of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s “Bernstein Festival”? Such was the case with Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3, which electrified the almost-sold-out audience at Verizon Hall and will go down as one of the musical highlights of the year.

In her post-concert comments, Higdon insisted that the only connection between her composition and Bernstein was that they both attended Curtis. I would suggest another: Like Bernstein, Higdon is her own auteur. One thing that impresses is the immediacy of the music, the past compositional theory and the fertile American musical terrain she explores.

Lenny’s exuberance rendered Maestro Eschenbach a trifle giddy as he introducing “the guys“ who comprise “Time for Three” (Zachary De Pue and Nicolas Kendall on violin and the very animated Ranaan Meyer on bass), the trio that impressively played Higdon’s note-gusher from memory the first time out. Indeed, from the opening wood-scratchy bars of dry violin to the densely supple string runs, Concerto 4-3 made me feel as if I were strolling along a rocky ridge when a hawk swooped me up for a river-deep, mountain-high flyby.

From cityscape to rustic landscape

The propulsion and the poetic gliding thrills continue for the work’s three movements, and Higdon exploited the trio’s furious fiddling and virtuosic clarity. The violin overlays break away to voluptuous bass and playing that was seismic. The rustic ambience Higdon conjures is a bursting tonal landscape, every bit as evocative and transporting as the urbane metropolitan tour she offered in her 2004 work, City Scapes. Higdon likes both ambient note bending and environmental sounds with orchestral effects like percussive clops (hooves in the distance).

The trio’s alchemy was reminiscent of the blood-red stream of non-conservatory American music that used to pulse through roadhouse hoe-downs and jazz club after hours sessions: Charlie Mingus meets Vassar Clements. That it’s so vibrantly performed in the symphonic concert hall is something that Bernstein, a champion of new American music, would love. Higdon’s non-derivative style (even with one Copland-esque vista in the second movement) contributes to the understanding of hybrid classical that is distinctly American.

If there was one deficiency in Concerto 4-3, it’s the muddy first entrance of the full orchestra that comes late in the first movement, which pales beside the much more vivid presence in the subsequent interplay.

Movements in reverse order

It’s interesting that Higdon composed the movements in reverse order, suggesting that this is a completely organic work inside and out, backward and forward, will all the parts moving together. Higdon questioned whether Concerto 4-3 could be performed by other musicians. Because of its progressive line, I would bet it eventually could be transcribed after this buoyant launch.

Eschenbach was fully invested in the rest of the program, detailing the tragic narrative in Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture to Romeo and Juliet, the cellos cutting deep into the depth of this drama, and all of the strings reaching crystallized lushness. The orchestra sustained through a crisp and robust version of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, his 20th Century R & J. Particularly deft was the tenderness of the Somewhere reprise, and letting the horns (obviously seasoned Sharks) swing out, à la Count Basie, on the Mambo section. The orchestra didn’t completely escape the purple romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, but by not tamping down the bilious architecture, the musicians let it lustily bloom.

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